Can FOMO Drive You to Drink?

Oct. 18, 2022 – This just in: College students drink, use drugs, and break the law. 

OK, so that’s not exactly news. But this is: A “fear of missing out” – playfully termed FOMO in the social media era – can predict these bad behaviors with surprising accuracy. That’s what researchers from Southern Connecticut State University found in a new study published in PLOS One

After surveying 472 undergrads (ages 18 to 24), researchers found that students with higher levels of FOMO were more likely to engage in academic misconduct, drug and alcohol use, and breaking the law. 

FOMO is the “chronic apprehension that one is missing rewarding/fun experiences peers are experiencing,” the paper says. It’s most common between ages 18 and 34, but anyone can feel it – and most people (nearly 90%) have. 

“Almost all of us experience FOMO with most hopefully not engaging in any serious maladaptive, dangerous, or illegal behavior,” says Paul McKee, a PhD student in the Cognitive Neuroscience Admitting Program at Duke University and the study’s lead author. “That being said, there is evidence, in this study and others, that those with higher levels of FOMO may be more likely to experience negative mental health consequences like increased anxiety or depression, or engage in less-than-desired behaviors.” 

Students in the study completed a 10-question quiz designed to assess FOMO levels. They were asked to rate on a 1-to-5 scale how true each of the following statements were: 

1. I fear others have more rewarding experiences than me.

2. I fear my friends have more rewarding experiences than me.

3. I get worried when I find out my friends are having fun without me.

4. I get anxious when I don’t know what my friends are up to.

5. It is important that I understand my friends’ “in jokes.”

6. Sometimes, I wonder if I spend too much time keeping up with what is going on.

7. It bothers me when I miss an opportunity to meet up with friends.

8. When I have a good time, it is important for me to share the details online (e.g. updating status).

9. When I miss out on a planned get-together, it bothers me.

10. When I go on vacation, I continue to keep tabs on what my friends are doing.

The higher a student’s average FOMO score, the more likely they were to have engaged in bad behaviors. 

“Maladaptive behaviors were more likely for someone with a 3 than a 2, but even more so likely for a 4 compared to the 3,” says McKee. 

Those behaviors included classroom incivility (like using your cellphone during class), plagiarism, alcohol and drug use, stealing, and giving out illegal and prescription drugs. And the associations remained even after controlling for gender, living situation, and social and economic status. 

In the end, the researchers were able to use FOMO to predict whether a student would engage in academic misconduct with up to 87% accuracy, drug use with up to 78% accuracy, illegal behavior with up to 75% accuracy, and alcohol use with up to 73% accuracy. 

That’s impressive, especially when you consider that a short, simple screening – including the 10 questions above — could be all it takes to predict these behaviors, McKee notes. 

The new study fits with previous research that has linked FOMO with negative outcomes like anxiety disorders, sleep problems, and higher alcohol use. 

Research also links FOMO with social media use. 

“There is enough literature out there today that shows strong evidence of a bi-directional relationship between FOMO and social media use,” McKee says. In other words, “FOMO may lead to more social media use, but more social media use may also lead to FOMO.”

More research is needed to better understand the link between FOMO and behavior, the researchers say. That could help us reduce its potential harms.